The Gifts for Church Government: Pastors and Deacons by James M. Renihan
Our risen and ascended Savior has chosen to give gifts to his church for her benefit. These gifts are his provision for the government and well-being of the Christian assembly. There are two, elders and deacons. We will notice each of these.
The term elder literally means ‘older man.’ When applied to everyday life, it is used to distinguish between a younger male and an older male, as in Acts 2:17 ‘Your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.’
It is frequently used, however, in Acts and the epistles to refer to leaders in the Christian church. This was based on the Jewish tradition of calling the ruling council elders, and also the Greek custom of giving the same title to both civic and religious leaders. It was a well-known and easily recognized title throughout the Mediterranean world.
As this type of term, it lost some of its connotation of age (though not all of it), and rather came to refer to one’s maturity as a person. It is used more than fourteen times in the New Testament with this sense, and always in the plural. In the apostolic writings, it refers to one’s spiritual maturity. An ‘elder’ in the Christian church must be a person who has demonstrated growth and stability in the Christian faith. An immature man cannot be an ‘elder’ no matter his age, and an ‘elder’ must be mature.
The second important term is overseer, or bishop. This word was also found in the languages of the Mediterranean nations with reference to religious positions. It appeared several times in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), was used by the Jewish historian Josephus, and an official of the pagan temple at Rhodes carried this title. It was thus not unknown or uncommon.
It literally means ‘to watch over,’ to guard, protect and care for a specific charge. In Acts 20:17 and 20:28 the terms ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ are used to refer to the same men. The elders were bishops, and there were many in the one church at Ephesus. It is used of men in a local church about five times in the New Testament, implying scrutiny, caution and awareness, like watchmen over a city.
In the third place, we must notice what is perhaps the most common-at least in our speech-of the New Testament terms: pastor or shepherd. Curiously, this is the rarest of the three terms in the Scriptures. It occurs only one time as a title (Eph. 4:11), though several times as a verb to describe the function of the officer. Acts 20:28 applies the term to elders and bishops. It is derived from the verb which means to heal, tend, lead to pasture. It primarily focuses upon the functions of the office-the duty to treat the people of God gently and with care. It is illustrated in John 10:11-15.
The office of authority in the local church is one of protecting, caring and nurturing-feed, water, exercise; counsel, advise, lead, give direction. It requires spiritual healing-pulling off briers and mending wounded bodies; driving off wolves and keeping sheep safe.
These three terms come together to give us a good picture of this ruling office. It is shepherding, as guardians, by mature men. It must be emphasized that these three things all relate to the same office, and each man in office is all three of these things-an elder, overseer (bishop), and pastor. The Bible knows nothing of elders who aren’t pastors or bishops; or pastors who aren’t elders; or bishops who are above elders and pastors.